World of Warcraft’s competitors continue evolving to keep up with the times, but WoW steadfastly refuses to convert to the free-to-play model. Even though major competitors like SWTOR, Rift and Tara have all seen their revenues jump after converting to F2P, Blizzard has held to its convictions not to move away from the subscription model. It and Eve Online stand as the only real subscription-based MMORPGs in a world where gamers are growing ever more accustomed to playing for free.
At least, that’s the official story. Astute players will note that more and more paid content is being added to the game through the Blizzard Store. At first, it was only real-world merchandise sold as novelties to a few die-hard fans or beleaguered families looking for Christmas presents. Then Blizzard started selling the first in-game vanity pets, exclusive mounts, and finally three new cosmetic armor pieces that take advantage of the game’s armor transmogrification system.
This behavior can be expected from a free-to-play game, which survive by offering exclusive content to members who are willing to pay for the perks. But from a game as big as WoW, it looks like little more than a shameless money grab – or a way to slowly ease players into accepting a free-to-play WoW?
It’s no mystery that free-to-play games attract a lot of users. These games often aren’t as “sticky” as subscriber-based games, though, as subscribers are more likely to stick around and play a game they’ve already paid for. More than that, WoW persists in being so popular simply because it’s still the game that everyone else is playing. While your friends might each play a different MMO on the side, pretty much everyone in the genre has a WoW account, making it the obvious virtual meet-up for groups of gamers.
World of Warcraft peaked at 12 million users in 2010, but that figure’s been dwindling ever since despite a new expansion pack and frequent additions of fresh content. Of course, a user base of around 8 million subscribers is still plenty commendable, especially on a game that’s almost a decade old. All games have a shelf life, and that WoW has continued to be the iconic game of its genre and a go-to example of clinically perfect game design for this long is a sign that Blizzard is clearly doing something right.
But it still can’t be ignored that World of Warcraft’s user base is dwindling while its free competitors grow in both members and income. And with the release of Blizzard’s newest, mysterious MMO project pushed back to 2016, it’s quite possible that a F2P game will rise to the top among players. On the other hand, it’s possible that the MMO player base will remain fragmented as it is now, with all former WoW-players choosing to play separate games. Either way, it’ll take a long time for Blizzard to really start suffering, especially so long as dedicated players continue paying for cash items on top of their monthly subscription fees.